Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Rating the Obama Presidency

Where does Barack Obama rank today on the list of American presidents?

There are 44 slots available.  Of those, 15 were re-elected, including Obama.  Since the 1960s, historians have debated and argued about each man, trying to judge their position in comparison to the others.  The criteria have remained fairly consistent.  Voters want honesty, consistency and good morals, according to a Gallup poll.  They put those qualities above experience and sound judgment.

Historians have added to that short list, including foreign policy, communication skills, luck and the opinion of international historians, along with such standards as: 

·                     An ability to put their own times in the perspective of history
·                     Effective communication skills
·                     The courage to make unpopular decisions
·                     Crisis management skills
·                     Character and integrity
·                     Wise appointments
·                     An ability to work with Congress
·                      A strong vision for the country's future
Franklin Roosevelt

CNN added in 2012 that “great presidents are those who change the course of American history.”

Because the list involves evaluations, opinions often change over time.  Some presidents, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, have consistently been highly rated as they successfully dealt with significant crises and significant turning points.

Others, however, have gained or lost status.  Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower were both considered mediocre presidents until more recent assessment moved them higher on the list.  On the other hand, George W. Bush has fallen to the bottom, a position typically reserved for James Buchanan, whose shortcomings helped precipitate the Civil War.

Where does Obama fit on the list?

Justice Sotomayor
His major accomplishments include the recent nuclear agreement with Iran, which still needs Congressional approval; the restructuring of the medical system; the reversal of the recession and resurrection of the automobile industry; increased the minimum wage to $10.10 on federal contracts; reduced the federal budget deficit from 9.8 percent of GDP in 2009 to 2.9 percent of GDP by 2014; appointmed women to prominent positions, creating the most diverse cabinet in U.S. history and added the first Hispanic, male or female, to the Supreme Court;  ended the U.S. involvement in the Iraqi war and set a timeline for leaving Afghanistan; re-established American credibility and influence worldwide; and oversaw the military’s capture and death of terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden.

That’s quite a record, but it doesn’t really end there because Obama added money to Pell Grants to help poorer students pay for higher education; increased support for stem cell research; stopped federal opposition to the sale of medical marijuana; increased rules to help keep waterways clean; and started immigration reform, which carries a 90 perfect approval rating among Hispanics. Most recently, he resolved our long-standing Cuban crisis.

He did all that without a breath of scandal.

He succeeded despite unprecedented opposition by Republicans.  Former Sen. George Voinovich admitted recently that Republican legislature agreed in 2008 to oppose anything Obama proposed, regardless of its merit or value to the voters.

Yet, because of his excellent communication skills, Obama managed to win the vast majority of his fights.  In his first year, for example, Obama obtained 97 percent of his initiatives, the highest success rate in American presidential history.

Internationally, according to Bruce Stokes, director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center, U.S. President Barack Obama restored faith in the U.S. presidency in the eyes of many around the world. And while that impact is waning, it still remains a strong American asset abroad.”

By the criteria established by historians, then, Obama has performed admirably.  He still has critics, and obviously, can never win over everyone, especially with the drumbeat of hate from the conservative elements of society. Racism, too, remains the tacit cause for the ever-present eagerness to both defy and demean any of his accomplishments.

To get a clearer picture of Obama’s legacy, in January 2015, New York magazine asked 50 historians to evaluate how the Obama administration will be seen in 20 years.  Here are some of their comments:

Stephen Walt, Harvard University professor of international affairs:  “As president, he showed that effective governing requires careful deliberation, discipline, and the willingness to make hard and imperfect decisions, and he let us all watch him do just that. Even when one disagreed with his choices, one knew that his acts were never impulsive or cavalier. Future historians will give him full marks for that.”

Stephen Kinzer, New York Times correspondent and author: “Forging a popular coalition, however, requires a galvanizing inspirational agenda. His policies were too moderate to electrify the public.”

Theda Skocpol, Harvard University professor of government and sociology: “Obama will get much more credit as time passes for saving the U.S. and global economy from a major crash and launching a robust and sustained economic
recovery. The question mark will remain how equitable the recovery proves to be.”

Thomas Holt, University of Chicago professor of American and African American history:  “Obamacare is easily the signal accomplishment of this president, assuming current efforts to unravel it will be defeated. It’s an achievement that will put Obama in the ranks of FDR (Social Security) and LBJ (Medicare) because of its enduring impact on the average American’s well-being. He won’t need bridges and airports named after him since opponents already did him the favor of naming it ‘Obamacare.’”

James Mann, author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies: “Historians will see that during Obama’s administration, the old China policies of the past four decades were quietly, gradually put to rest.”

Thomas J. Sugrue, University of Pennsylvania Professor of History and Sociology: “The Department of Justice had arguably never been as partisan as it was during the Bush years. Obama, by contrast, appointed many highly regarded professionals. Those appointees have professionalized the hiring process and reinvigorated many of the DOJ’s divisions. A similar process has played out in the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Labor.”

Crystal Feimster, Yale University Associate Prof African American Studies and American Studies and History:  Obama … has expanded economic opportunities for women, fought pay discrimination, increased women’s access to quality and affordable health care, worked toward combating sexual assault on college campus and in the military, and expanded services for victims of domestic violence and their children.”

Mark Lilla, Columbia University professor of Humanities: “Good historians pay attention not only to what political figures actively accomplish — wars won, legislation passed — but to what they prevent from happening, a negative but real accomplishment. By that measure, Barack Obama accomplished a lot.”

Jeffrey Alexander, sociologist: “Obama has had to have been his own social movement, and this puts him in vulnerable territory. The exceptions — the gay and lesbian movements and the Hispanic mobilization around immigration — … in these areas Obama has been demonstrably responsive.”

There’s no reason to reprint all the comments, but the consensus today is that Obama did a very good job.

Isn’t that all anyone can ask of a president?

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus, whose doctoral work was in American Studies at Case Western Reserve University, regularly writes about religion, religious history and American history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net.  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His most recent book is Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1

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